Sat 12 March 2011, Stocksbridge Park Steels 1 – Frickley Ath 1 (NPL Prem)

INTO THE VALLEY…

(GO TWO TEAMS WHOSE SEASON IS IN DANGER OF HITTING THE SKIDS)
Destination: Bracken Moor, Bracken Moor Lane, Stocksbridge, South Yorks.
Competition: (Evo-Stik) Northern Premier League, Premier Division
K/O: 3pm
Attendance: 161
Admission: £7
Programme: £1.50 (44 pages / 23 of ads)

Pre-Match Filling: Stocksbridge is dominated by two things: hills and the local steel plant. The true scale of each of them though, is something that you can only appreciate first-hand (my excuse is it looked flat on the map). Set at the bottom of the valley, the steelworks goes on as far as the eye can see. And the hills are not just normal hills, these are hills with a gradient of 1: you-expect-me-to-walk-up-that!? And which can’t decide whether they want to go up or down. So you get a sharp incline, followed by a sharp decline, followed by a sharp incline, followed by a sharp decline, etc, etc. But while the area geographically suffers from severe mental hillness, Stocksbridge’s Bracken Moor ground itself is a hidden gem, and well worth trying to suss out the local transport timetables for.

Directions: Though there is a direct bus from both Meadowhall and Sheffield (the 201 or 57), they take the best part of an hour and will drop you at varying distances from the ground. So by far the best way to get there by public transport, is to get a yellow-line tram from either Meadowhall or Sheffield to Middlewood, which then connects immediately into a park-and-ride bus to Stocksbridge. The tram takes around 15mins from the centre of Sheffield (or around 25 from Meadowhall), and then the bus takes around the same again, and will conveniently drop you right outside the ground. From here, the club has a top flight social club, or you can head virtually next door to the Miners Arms for a pre-match pub stop. If travelling by car, then Stocksbridge is easily reached via the A616, with the ground close to where Bracken Moor Lane intersects with Broomfield Lane. As well as a small club car park, there is currently additional parking space just opposite the entrance to the ground.

Off The Pitch: Given the local geography, Stocksbridge’s ground is remarkably flat. This is thanks to a great levelling exercise which was done in the 1940s, soon after the local steel plant bought the land for its works team. Before this, the area consisted of a dual-purpose cricket pitch with two football pitches marked out on it, and was far more sloped. The main stand and adjoining stone-structure changing rooms were built in the 1960s, with many of the present-day component parts of the stand (including the natty wooden seats) coming subsequently from nearby Hillsborough.

Following the merger of Stocksbridge Works with Oxley Park Sports to form Stocksbridge Park Steels in 1986, Bracken Moor was upgraded with a new clubhouse built and a second stand added behind one goal. 1990 saw floodlights installed, and with the ground now widely regarded as one of the best at this level in the region, it was also used as a venue for the World Student Games in 1991. The present set up sees the area behind the opposite goal without any cover, and the fourth side of the ground shared with cricket, so blessed with the standard 6-feet wooden fence along its entire length.

Looking down the wooden fence, with the cricket ground visible to the right
Elsewhere in the ground, there is a room containing a tea bar, with a merchandise table in the corner selling an array of scarves, badges, pens, etc. Adorning the walls in this room is a selection of historical photos of various Stocksbridge teams throughout the ages, and overall, the facilities give the impression of a very well maintained and accommodating set-up. Situated just 4 or 5 miles north of Hillsborough, unsurprisingly there seemed to be an overall bias towards the blue and white team in Sheffield, who today took great delight in the half-time news that United were not only 2-1 down but had also had 2 players sent off to add to their relegation worries.

On The Pitch: With the words ‘relegation six-pointer’ tripping off the tongue today as easily as the pre-match pint in the Miners Arms disappeared, I expected that we were in for a cagey affair on the pitch. Stocksbridge’s programme (£1.50 for 44 pages including 23 of ads, fact fans) handily includes a form guide for the last 4 league games, which means I can inform you that although Stocksbridge sit 3 points and 3 places above Frickley in the table, Frickley are the inform team of the two, having got 4 points to Stocksbridge’s paltry 1 in most recent times.  Add to this the fact that Stocksbridge’s current manager, Gary Marrow, is a former Frickley manager, and that current Frickley boss Peter Rinkcavage is ex-Steels, then all the ingredients are there for a love-in and sharing a point each to be charitable, aren’t they? Well no, certainly not. Both sides went out to battle having seemingly been instructed that a loss today and they were walking back into Sheffield. A point-a-piece was a fair result – Frickley had the upper hand in the first half, and Ashley Longstaff (ex-Stocksbridge, natch) scored a cracker on the turn from just outside the box to give them the lead at the break. Later described by opposing manager Gary Marrow as “a wonder goal”, Longstaff’s strike was miles better than that shinned Wayne Rooney effort which them lot off the telly have been gushing over recently.
Stocksbridge came out for the second half like their life depended on it, and grabbed an equaliser on 62 minutes from a backwards glancing header just inside the box by Jack Muldoon – which may or may not have been a deliberate attempt on goal. Both sides came close to grabbing what would have been a priceless winner, but neither could quite manage it.
Unfortunately, the closing stages of the match were overshadowed by Stocksbridge’s Stuart Ludlam getting his marching orders, following a second booking for a clumsy challenge on Frickley sub Mark Whitehouse. While it was debatable whether it deserved a booking  (yes, he made some contact with the ball, but it was played against him rather than won, and he also appeared to make sure he blocked off the Frickley player while in full flight first and foremost), Stocksbridge’s collective OTT ganging up on the linesman for the remainder of the match was cowardly and brought a sour end to what had been a great contest. Leagues have enough trouble finding officials at this level as it is, and such a reaction makes any so-called ‘Respect’ initiative a complete joke.  My view is that most linesmen would have called it the same these days, when the type of challenge is more important than factors such as whether the ball was played at all during the challenge. Anyway, needless bullying of officials aside, a great day out, and one of the best goals you’re likely to see at this level of football, courtesy of Ashley Longstaff. Go to: http://www.stocksbridgeps.com/spstv.html and see both talking points for yourself.
End credits: In summary, Bracken Moor is one of the best grounds that non-league has to offer, with just the right mix of everything. For anyone who enjoys going to new places to watch their own team, or just ground hopping around as a neutral, I would suggest a visit to Stocksbridge is essential. Ideally, I would also recommend you head there during the sunny earlier or later periods of the season if possible, in order to make the most of the views and the exposed location.

Longstaff assumes ‘Christ-like’ pose, prior to banging in goal-of-the-season contender
Note the two cheeky young scamps at the top here, situated in the ‘outside the ground’ stand!

James Kay’s fish impression receives a mixed reception
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